Seriousness is the New Black

Editor's Note: Today we welcome a new writer to 3QD. Sue Hubbard is a freelance art writer based in London writing for a variety of publications from The Independent to the New Statesman. An award-winning poet, she has published two collections of poetry, Everything Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon) and Ghost Station (Salt), as well as a novel, Depth of Field (Dewi Lewis) and a recent collection of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt).

The Turner Prize at Tate Britain and Anish Kapoor at The Royal Academy

Sue Hubbard

Turner%20Prize%2009%20Press%2003 Many factors have lead to London’s pre-eminence in the contemporary art world: the importance of Goldsmith’s College to the Hirst generation of YBAs, Saatchi’s ubiquitous influence as a collector, Jay Joplin’s White Cube gallery, the founding of the annual Frieze art fair, and of course, the Turner Prize, that annual award set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary art presented each year to a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition in the preceding twelve months. It has always been a controversial affair. There was, of course, that bed (it didn’t win) and Martin Creed’s minimal light bulbs that simply went on and off. Last year, the shortlist was universally derided as opaque and pretentious. But looking back over its history, love it or hate it, The Turner Prize has become a barometer of the British art scene. Those nominated, often previously unknown outside the art world, usually end up as household names.

This year the short list feels subtly different, not only is there an absence of videos (accident not design, it is claimed) but the work is thoughtful, complex, crafted and, in several cases, rather beautiful. There is little irony. Seriousness, it seems, is this season’s new black.

Glaswegian artist Lucy Skaer (the only woman) has named her installation Thames and Hudson, a reference to both those mighty rivers as well as to the celebrated art publisher. Yet, somehow, the whole feels made up of rather too many disparate parts. A dismantled chair has been used to make some rather obtuse prints, while her Black Alphabet is a version of Brancusi’s 1923 sculpture Bird in Space, caste 26 times in compressed coal dust – though her purpose and message remain rather a mystery. Her pièce de résistance, however, is the skull of an adult male sperm whale (a comparison with Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark is unavoidable) on loan from a Scottish museum. Suspended so that it is only partially visible through a series of screens, its sad bony hulk is reminiscent of those Victorian curiosities peered at through fairground peep holes.

[Image Credit: Lucy Skaer, Thames and Hudson 2009, including Leviathan Edge 2009, on loan courtesy of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland. Photo credit: Sam Drake and Gabrielle Johnson, Tate Photography.]

Enter the second gallery and, at first, it seems to be mostly white. Yet, at the far end, a baroque style design made of gold leaf has been applied straight onto the wall. Standing in front of it patterns begin to emerge: a pelvis, a spine and even female genitals. Elsewhere the gold bursts into a sunray, which made me think of Louis XIV, The Sun King, which then started me musing about the transient nature of power and provoked the thought that this rather beautiful piece would last only as long as the exhibition, before being painted over and returned to being just another gallery wall. It could, therefore, be seen as a sort of contemporary vanitas painting. All this beauty, we are subtly reminded, will be erased to become so much white wash. Just as we, too, will eventually be erased. This is decorative art with a serious twist.

The next gallery comes as a complete contrast. Enrico David's installation, titled Absuction Cardigan is fun, annoying and serious in about equal measure. I did not go much for his humpty dumpty black figures set on skis but his mis en scène, raised on a sort of stage, is deeply unnerving. A huge black, stuffed doll-of-a -creature, with a neck and tail the length of the room, lies draped over a variety disquieting props. Its face, a flat wooden mask, is comprised of nothing but bore holes. Part floppy toy, part dead animal and sexual playmate, it draws on Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager’s transgressive figures, and on Hans Bellmer’s erotic dolls.

Roger Hiorn’s work inhabits the final space. Here lumpy sculptures of cast plastic have been injected with bovine brain matter, so that what was once sentient has been rendered inert and mummified. Metaphors of death are also strong in his beautiful, evocative landscape, in subtle shades of grey and black, made from an atomised passenger jet engine and scattered on the floor to resemble the Himalayas or the surface of the moon. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; like all good art it evokes a number of readings that range from the disaster of 9/11 to a globally warmed and violated earth.

Kapoor_Yellow%20&%20'As%20if%20to%20Celebrate Proof that the Tuner prize does sometimes get it right can be seen at the Royal Academy where the 1991 Turner Prize winner, Anish Kapoor, has one of London’s most outstanding exhibitions. There have been those who have complained that is sensationalist, too male and too reliant on gadgets and props. I admit that I never much liked his Masaryas that filled Tate Modern’s turbine hall – too much bravura engineering and not enough poetry. But this is one of the most evocative exhibitions I’ve come across in a long time. Not only technically brilliant and thought provoking, its scale is heroic. It starts in the courtyard with a major new sculptor Tall Tree and the Eye, inspired, according to Kapoor, by the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Made of, apparently, precariously balanced steel balls that reflect back the surrounding Palladian architecture, this signals that Kapoor is not afraid of beauty. An unfashionable component in much contemporary art, there is much to be found inside Burlington House.

In the first room is a group of early pigment sculptures from the 70s and 80s, strongly influenced by his Indian origins, and which reinforce his reputation as a colourist. The unmixed heaps, built into pyramids and ziggurats of bright blue, cinnamon yellow and cayenne red, resemble rather sophisticated sandcastles and evoke piles of Indian spices in a way that, although not particularly demanding, stir a remembrance of things past.

[Image credit: Anish Kapoor, Yellow, 1999, fibreglass and pigment, 6 X 6 X 3 m, courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery. Photo Dave Morgan.]

Move through the galleries and you will find a barely visible pregnant lump protruding from the white gallery wall, and another huge large yellow wall where the indentation is concave. The effect is like standing in front of some Aztec shrine where one is seductively sucked into the sun-like void, and invited to think of beginnings and endings, origins and destruction.

Then there is Shooting into the Corner, a new work where gobbets of red wax are fired from a canon through one of the Royal Academy’s elegant 18th century doorways. This happens three times an hour. Many visitors seem simply to have been taken up by the drama in a man-fired-from -cannon sort of way. But I found it very disturbing. A gallery assistant dressed in black stands with military bearing stuffing cartridges into the canon. The explosion, when it comes, is deafening. In this palatial setting, as the red wax splatters the white walls and the surrounding Adams style doorway, like the visceral effluvia of executed bodies, I kept thinking of the final moments of the last Tsar and his family or Manet’s Execution of Maximilian.

Kapoor_Svayambh,%20Royal%20Academy A multiplicity of readings can also be applied to the monumental work Svayambh (2007). Already shown in previous locations this is probably its most dramatic setting. Svayambh means ‘self-generated’ in Sanskrit and the piece reinforces Kapoor’s interest in sculpture that actively explores this process. Again many viewers were taken with the theatre of the moving mechanism, running between galleries to watch as the vast block of red wax was slowly squeezed, like a great juggernaut, through the doorways of Burlington House. And certainly one is reminded of those huge Indian carts from which the name juggernaut comes, and of the annual procession at Puri in east-central India where worshipers throw themselves under the wheels of the huge wagon on which the idol of Krishna is carried. But for anyone with a poetic imagination, this red gash of an object, moving relentlessly along the rail tracks like a piece of raw meat, covering the doorways along the way with coagulated red carnage, must have historical resonances, evoking the trains that took thousands to their death in the Nazi transports or those who gave their life’s blood in acts of enforced labour to build railways in the Far East during the last world war. Huge and monumental, its movement almost imperceptible, it marks, as it slowly lumbers its way through the gallery like a slow birthing of the building itself, the passing of time. And yet despite all the layers of meaning that it invites, it is, ultimately, an abstract work of art, an act of the imagination and an exploration of the possibility of materials.

[Image credit: Anish Kapoor, Svayambh, 2007, installed at the Royal Academy of Arts, 2009, wax and oil-based paint, dimensions variable, courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London. Photo: John Bodkin.]

The exhibition is huge. There are beguiling sculptural mirrors that reflect the gold leafed ceiling and the self back to the self, blurring the lines between perceived and actual experience; and piles of coiled cement, which suggest the history of pot making and the touch of the human hand, but which, in fact, have been arrived at by a rough sketch being fed into a computer and attached to a cement-mixer, which, in turn, has been attached to a machine adapted from the food industry to excrete the cement like icing; and a vast, rusted steel Richard Serra-like sculpture Hive, an enormous pod, splayed open at one end to reveal a deep central void, which is at once both erotic and chthonic.

Kapoor is not a philosopher, nor does he claim to have anything, as a visual artist, particular to say. The power of this work lies in its ability to provoke questions about origins, perception, belief and self definition. Comparison can be made with the spiritual leanings of Yves Klein (homage is surely paid in Kapoor’s early blue pigment works) but where Klein’s spirituality was derived from the arcane complexities of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, Kapoor’s work is never didactic. There is an openness about his quest which is not wedded to a single belief system, but reminds us, as Keats once did, that there is, indeed, truth in beauty.

This year’s Turner short listed artists still have some way to go.

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